The Rhinemaidens, guardians of the Rhinegold, swim in the waters, teasing the Nibelung Alberich and revealing the secret of the gold that he who forges a ring from it will rule the world, but the one who forges the ring must abjure love. Alberich seizes the gold and makes off. Wotan and Fricka awake from their sleep and see the new castle completed: now its builders Fasolt and Fafner must be rewarded with Fricka's sister, Freia, who seeks escape from the bargain. Her brothers Donner and Froh try to protect her, but the two giants insist on their reward, Fasolt hoping thus to deprive the gods of youth, imparted by the apples that Freia has in her possession.
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It was performed, as a single opera, at the National Theatre Munich on 22 September , and received its first performance as part of the Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus , on 13 August Wagner wrote the Ring librettos in reverse order, so that Das Rheingold was the last of the texts to be written; it was, however, the first to be set to music. The score was completed in , but Wagner was unwilling to sanction its performance until the whole cycle was complete; he worked intermittently on this music until Following its Bayreuth premiere, the Ring cycle was introduced into the worldwide repertory, with performances in all the main opera houses, in which it has remained a regular and popular fixture.
In his essay Opera and Drama , Wagner had set out new principles as to how music dramas should be constructed, under which the conventional forms of opera arias, ensembles, choruses were rejected. Rather than providing word-settings, the music would interpret the text emotionally, reflecting the feelings and moods behind the work, by using a system of recurring leitmotifs to represent people, ideas and situations.
Das Rheingold was Wagner's first work that adopted these principles, and his most rigid adherence to them, despite a few deviations — the Rhinemaidens frequently sing in ensemble. As the "preliminary evening" within the cycle, Das Rheingold gives the background to the events that drive the main dramas of the cycle. It recounts Alberich 's theft of the Rhine gold after his renunciation of love; his fashioning of the all-powerful ring from the gold and his enslavement of the Nibelungs ; Wotan 's seizure of the gold and the ring, to pay his debt to the giants who have built his fortress Valhalla ; Alberich's curse on the ring and its possessors; Erda 's warning to Wotan to forsake the ring; the early manifestation of the curse's power after Wotan yields the ring to the giants; and the gods' uneasy entry into Valhalla, under the shadow of their impending doom.
Having completed this opera Lohengrin in April , Richard Wagner chose as his next subject Siegfried , the legendary hero of Germanic myth. In he outlined his purpose in his essay "A Communication to My Friends": "I propose to produce my myth in three complete dramas, preceded by a lengthy Prelude Vorspiel ".
Finally, to these three works Wagner added a prologue which he named Das Rheingold. Alberich , a Nibelung dwarf , appears from a deep chasm and tries to woo them. The maidens mock his advances and he grows angry — he chases them, but they elude, tease and humiliate him.
A sudden ray of sunshine pierces the depths, to reveal the Rhinegold. The maidens rejoice in the gold's gleam. Alberich asks what it is. They explain that the gold, which their father has ordered them to guard, can be made into a magic ring which gives power to rule the world, if its bearer first renounces love. The maidens think they have nothing to fear from the lustful dwarf, but Alberich, embittered by their mockery, curses love, seizes the gold and returns to his chasm, leaving them screaming in dismay.
Wotan , ruler of the gods, is asleep on a mountaintop, with a magnificent castle behind him. His wife, Fricka , wakes Wotan, who salutes their new home.
Fricka reminds him of his promise to the giants Fasolt and Fafner , who built the castle, that he would give them Fricka's sister Freia , the goddess of youth and beauty, as payment. Fricka is worried for her sister, but Wotan trusts that Loge , the demigod of fire, will find an alternative payment. Freia enters in a panic, followed by Fasolt and Fafner.
Fasolt demands that Freia be given up. He points out that Wotan's authority is sustained by the treaties carved into his spear, including his contract with the giants, which Wotan therefore cannot violate. Donner , god of thunder, and Froh , god of sunshine, arrive to defend Freia, but Wotan cannot permit the use of force to break the agreement. Hoping that Loge will arrive with the alternative payment he has promised, Wotan tries to stall. When Loge arrives, his initial report is discouraging: nothing is more valuable to men than love, so there is apparently no possible alternative payment besides Freia.
Loge was able to find only one instance where someone willingly gave up love for something else: Alberich the Nibelung has renounced love, stolen the Rhine gold and made a powerful magic ring out of it.
A discussion of the ring and its powers ensues, and everyone finds good reasons for wanting to own it. Fafner makes a counter-offer: the giants will accept the Nibelung's treasure in payment, instead of Freia. When Wotan tries to haggle, the giants depart, taking Freia with them as hostage and threatening to keep her forever unless the gods ransom her by obtaining, and giving them the Nibelung's gold by the end of the day. Freia's golden apples had kept the gods eternally young, but in her absence they begin to age and weaken.
In order to redeem Freia, Wotan resolves to travel with Loge to Alberich's subterranean kingdom to obtain the gold. In Nibelheim, Alberich has enslaved the rest of the Nibelung dwarves with the power of the ring.
He has forced his brother Mime, a skillful smith, to create a magic helmet, the Tarnhelm. Alberich demonstrates the Tarnhelm's power by making himself invisible, the better to torment his subjects.
Wotan and Loge arrive and happen upon Mime, who tells them of the dwarves' misery under Alberich's rule. Alberich returns, driving his slaves to pile up a huge mound of gold. He boasts to the visitors about his plans to conquer the world using the power of the ring.
Loge asks how he can protect himself against a thief while he sleeps. Alberich replies the Tarnhelm will hide him, by allowing him to turn invisible or change his form. Loge expresses doubt and requests a demonstration. Alberich complies by transforming himself into a giant snake; Loge acts suitably impressed, and then asks whether Alberich can also reduce his size, which would be very useful for hiding. Alberich transforms himself into a toad. Wotan and Loge seize him, tie his hands, and drag him up to the surface.
Back on the mountaintop, Wotan and Loge force Alberich to exchange his wealth for his freedom. He summons the Nibelungen, who bring up the hoard of gold. He then asks for the return of the Tarnhelm, but Loge says that it is part of his ransom.
Alberich still hopes he can keep the ring, but Wotan demands it, and when Alberich refuses, Wotan tears it from Alberich's hand and puts it on his own finger. Crushed by his loss, Alberich lays a curse on the ring: until it should return to him, whoever possesses it will live in anxiety, and will eventually be robbed of it and killed.
The gods reconvene. Fasolt and Fafner return with Freia. Fasolt, reluctant to release her, insists that the gold be piled high enough to hide her from view. Wotan is forced to relinquish the Tarnhelm, to help cover Freia completely. However, Fasolt spots a remaining crack in the gold, through which one of Freia's eyes can be seen. Loge says that there is no more gold, but Fafner, who has noticed the ring on Wotan's finger, demands that Wotan add it to the pile, to block the crack.
Loge protests that the ring belongs to the Rheinmaidens, and Wotan angrily declares that he intends to keep it for his own. As the giants seize Freia and start to leave, Erda , the earth goddess, appears and warns Wotan of impending doom, urging him to give up the cursed ring.
Troubled, Wotan calls the giants back and surrenders the ring. The giants release Freia and begin dividing the treasure, but they quarrel over the ring itself. Fafner clubs Fasolt to death. Wotan, horrified, realizes that Alberich's curse has terrible power.
Donner summons a thunderstorm to clear the air, after which Froh creates a rainbow bridge that stretches to the gate of the castle. Wotan leads the gods across the bridge to the castle, which he names Valhalla. Loge does not follow; he says in an aside that he is tempted to destroy the treacherous gods by fire — he will think it over. Far below, the Rhine maidens mourn the loss of their gold, and condemn the gods as false and cowardly.
Because Wagner developed his Ring scheme in reverse chronological order, the "poem" libretto for Das Rheingold was the last of the four to be written. He finished his prose plan for the work in March , and on 15 September began writing the full libretto, which he completed on 3 November.
These are poems and texts from 12th and 13th-century Iceland, which relate the doings of various Norse gods. Among these stories, a magic ring and a hoard of gold held by the dwarf Andvari Wagner's Alberich are stolen by the gods Odin Wotan and Loki Loge and used to redeem a debt to two brothers. One of these, Fafnir, kills his brother and turns himself into a dragon to guard the gold. A few Rhinegold characters originate from outside the Eddas. Mime appears in the Thidriks saga , as a human smith rather than as an enslaved Nibelung.
Wagner may also have been influenced by the Rhine-based German legend of Lorelei , who lures fishermen on to the rocks by her singing, and by the Greek Hesperides myth in which three maidens guard a golden treasure.
Robert Jacobs, in his biography of the composer, observes that the "Nibelung Myth" on which Wagner based his entire Ring story was "very much a personal creation", the result of Wagner's "brilliant manipulation" of his sources.
Holman, in his "Listener's Guide and Concordance" , cites the Alberich character as typifying Wagner's ability to "consolidate selected aspects from diverse stories to create Wagner originally conceived the first scene of Das Rheingold as a prologue to the three scenes that follow it.
As early as , in his novella "A Pilgrimage to Beethoven", Wagner had anticipated a form of lyric drama in which the standard operatic divisions would disappear. In the new kind of musical drama, he wrote, the traditional operatic norms of chorus, arias and vocal numbers would have no part. Holman counts 42,  while Roger Scruton , in his philosophical analysis of the Ring , numbers them at Apart from some early sketches in , relating to Siegfried's Death , Wagner composed the Ring music in its proper sequence.
According to his memoirs, Wagner's first inspiration for the music came to him in a half-dream, on 4 September , while he was in Spezia in Italy. He records a feeling of "sinking in swiftly flowing water. The rushing sound formed itself in my brain into a musical sound, the chord of E flat major, which continually re-echoed in broken forms I at once recognised that the orchestral overture to the Rheingold, which must long have lain latent within me, though it had been unable to find definite form, had at last been revealed to me".
He finished the first draft in mid-January , and by the end of May had completed the full orchestral score.
At that point, in , he set Siegfried aside in order to work on Tristan und Isolde , and did not return to the Ring project for 12 years. Long before Das Rheingold was ready for performance, Wagner conducted excerpts of the music from Scenes 1, 2 and 4, at a concert in Vienna on 26 December Wagner was refused admission to the rehearsals at the theatre, and returned, angry and defeated, to his home in Triebschen.
Accounts differ as to the success or otherwise of the Munich premiere. Osborne maintains that the performance was successful,  as does Holman,  [n 2] while Oliver Hilmes in his biography of Cosima describes it as "an artistic disaster".
In , with the Bayreuth Festspielhaus built, Wagner was ready to stage the first Bayreuth Festival with his own production of the now complete Ring cycle, beginning with a performance of Das Rheingold on 13 August.
This event was preceded by months of preparation in which Wagner was deeply engaged; according to witnesses, he was "director, producer, coach, conductor, singer, actor, stage manager, stage hand and prompter". The 13 August premiere was an event of international importance, and attracted a distinguished audience which included Kaiser Wilhelm I , Emperor Pedro II of Brazil and numerous representatives of the various European royal houses. The huge influx of visitors overwhelmed the resources of the modest-sized town and caused considerable discomfort to some of the most distinguished of the guests; Tchaikovsky later described his sojourn at Bayreuth as a "struggle for existence".
Despite the careful preparation, the first Bayreuth performance of Das Rheingold was punctuated by several mishaps. Some scene changes were mishandled; at one point a backdrop was prematurely lifted to reveal a number of stagehands and stage machinery; early in Scene 4 Betz, as Wotan, mislaid the ring and had to go backstage to look for it;   the gas lighting failed repeatedly, plunging the auditorium into darkness.
Synopsis: Das Rheingold
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SCENE 1. Deep in the Rhine, three of the river's daughters, custodians of a golden treasure, laugh while they play, scarcely noticing when Alberich emerges from a crevice. Seized by desire, the gnome tries to catch the Rhinemaidens as they dart through the waters, but his clumsy attempts lead to frustration. Taunts from his quarry merely quicken the Nibelung's lust and anger. Suddenly sunlight illuminates the summit of a rock — the Rhinegold. Hailing the precious hoard, the nymphs are astonished that Alberich does not know what it represents. The Rhinegold is all-powerful, they explain to him, and were it fashioned into a Ring, the wearer would rule the world.